Jumping from one call to another, the IRFU’s Medical Director, Dr Rod McLoughlin, has been one of the busiest and most important individuals in Irish Rugby during the COVID-19 pandemic as months of meticulous planning is implemented ahead of the phased return to training for the senior provincial squads from next Monday onwards.
Since the suspension of all rugby activity in March, Rod has been working and liaising assiduously with Sport Ireland, the Department of Sport and other sporting bodies from within Ireland and across the globe to understand the measures required to create an environment that will allow the professional side of the game to return to training.
Following the submission of comprehensive return to training and return to rugby documents to Government, five High Performance Centres – the IRFU High Performance Centre (HPC) on the Sport Ireland Campus, Connacht’s HPC at the Sportsgrounds, Leinster’s HPC at UCD, Munster’s HPC at University of Limerick and Ulster’s HPC at Kingspan Stadium – were identified and supporting infrastructure has been put in place to facilitate a safe return for the players and a very limited number of coaching and support staff.
From Monday 22nd June, Leinster and Munster will return to their respective High Performance training bases on a phased basis, while Connacht and Ulster, who are working off a slightly different pre-season schedule, will return a week later on Monday 29th June, with the National Men’s and Women’s Sevens squads due back in training from Monday 6th July.
Ahead of this return to training and as part of the IRFU’s Return To Rugby protocols, the senior professional players from all four provinces, along with the High Performance staff and coaches, will undergo a medical pre-screening and education phase, including the nationally co-ordinated PCR testing programme as announced on Tuesday.
Having consulted with other Unions and sports around the world, specifically National Rugby League clubs in Australia, Rod cannot overstate the importance of this education phase enough as the IRFU strives to build knowledge and awareness around COVID-19 and subsequently minimise the risk of any individual who has contracted COVID-19 entering a HPC facility.
“We’re coming from a phase where the players have been in programmes at home training for the last 10-12 weeks and what we’re attempting now to do is bring them together in a safe environment,” the IRFU Medical Director tells IrishRugby.ie. “There have been huge preparations across the Union and we’ve really had to go away and examine everything we do from the beginning of a training day to the end of a training day through the perspective of how we mitigate or lessen the risk of spreading and transmitting COVID-19.
“This has been a very busy operational phase for us as we prepare the HPC facilities for the players to return but also prepare the players for their return. That involves educating them, screening them and making sure they understand why we need to implement all the processes and protocols. For example, we’ve had to introduce well over 20 new medical protocols around our normal daily activities within the HPC facilities and that’s just one snippet of an area.”
As well as restricting initial training activities to the five High Performance Centres around the country, and thereby ensuring tightly controlled environments, a key element of the protection process is limiting the number of staff to each facility and only individuals who are on a registered list and have observed the same mandatory protocols as the players will be permitted entry.
The measures in place are strict but absolutely essential to minimise the risk to player and staff health and to maintain the integrity of the HPC environments, as Rod explains.
“Each step along this process is as important as the next,” he says. “The players will this week undergo the PCR testing programme and then complete an online educational webinar, which will have two components to it. The first part will inform them about COVID-19, how it’s transmitted and the signs and symptoms they should be aware of. The second part of that online module will be specific to the HPC they’re going into, so it’ll outline what will happen when they arrive and what is expected of them.
“They will then have to complete a questionnaire that will essentially examine their risk of having COVID-19 and examine the risk of them having been in contact with someone who has COVID-19. The final piece of the education phase will be an interactive webinar with their respective team doctor where the players will get the chance to ask the doctor and myself any questions they may have.”
Before being permitted entry to the HPC, each player – who must travel alone and already be in their training kit – must complete a daily questionnaire at check-in, before having their temperature taken. If, for some reason, the questionnaire raises a concern, this alerts the medical staff to a symptom suggestive of COVID-19 or the player’s temperature is above 37.5°C, a decision will be taken on the next course of action for that player.
Training will also be very different during the initial phase. From Monday, Leinster and Munster will return in small groups of seven and each pod will work with one designated coach without any interaction with other groups, while there will be stringent hygiene measures in place around the use of gym equipment.
“The first week they’ll be brought in in groups of seven with one coach and it’ll be the same seven every day and no group will interact with another group,” Rod continues. “In week two, we will amalgamate two groups and that will become 14 and two coaches will work with that group.
“What we’re doing is trying to minimise the risk as much as we can. We can’t remove 100% of the risk but everything we’re doing is designed to ensure the players and our staff can return to work safely. They will arrive, train and go home. There will be no showers, changing room facilities, kitchen areas or video analysis rooms available.”
While the players and staff will have completed educational programmes before entering the HPC, each facility will have a designated COVID-19 manager to ensure all the protocols that have been directed and overseen centrally by the IRFU are being followed.
Throughout this process, Rod and the IRFU Medical Committee has left nothing to chance as they’ve planned and mapped out every scenario and eventuality, including the possibility of a player not wanting to return to group training due to personal and family reasons, or a player testing positive for COVID-19 once back in a HPC environment.
“The majority of players are very keen to get back but understandably there may be some others who have specific concerns,” Rod says. “Firstly, no player will be forced to return to training and if a player does contact us with concerns, they will all be addressed individually. We have established a Medical Committee who will advise any player who has concerns.
“We would expect given the experience of COVID-19 in the community that we might have a small number of COVID-19 cases across the whole system and as part of the pre-screening phase, every player will be assessed for the possibility that they had COVID-19 because there is some concern around people who have previously had the virus returning to high intensity exercise. We will assess each player’s lung and cardio health and they will undergo whatever tests necessary for us to be happy that it’s safe for them to return to training.
“Players or support staff, like anyone in the community, could experience COVID-19 after they return to training, and we have contingencies to deal with that. It’s one of the reason we’re going back in small pods, so that if that situation arises, that individual has been in contact with as few people as possible. What we’re trying to do is in the first instance is lower the risk of it happening and then training in such a way that if it happens, their close contacts are a very limited number and only those people who have been in contact with them will have to isolate.”
The initial focus for Rod has been on the return of the senior provincial squads ahead of a possible return to Guinness PRO14 action behind-closed-doors at the Aviva Stadium on 22nd/23rd August, and the IRFU will closely monitor the evolving fixture calendars for the Ireland Women’s XVs and Academy squads before mobilising their return to training schedules.
Rod adds: “We’re getting squads back in time for their performance aims. The first teams up are the senior provincial squads and hopefully games for them in August. That’s why they’re back first and each squad will be brought back in time for their own performance aims. We have the Sevens coming back next and then at a later date the Academies and then when we have clarity around the Women’s XVs calendar, we will work back from their performance aims.
“The one thing we’ve learned from this pandemic is that you make the plans and things change rapidly from week to week so we’re making plans around every contingency and we’ll then see what the reality is when we get there. In short, we’re all working hard to get the players back training and back out onto the pitch and then hopefully we can use the same principles for the anticipated return of the domestic game in September. We’re doing everything to ensure rugby can return safely at all levels. That’s what we all want at the end of the day.”